The Hawaiian Vanilla Company Experience

Lisa Brochu, my wife and consulting partner in Heartfelt Associates, recently celebrated a birthday and suggested we have her birthday lunch at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company. In two decades of traveling to 24 countries and 50 U.S. states to train and consult on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences, we had somehow managed to miss visiting a vanilla farm, so it seemed the perfect opportunity.

 

Jim Reddekopp founded the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in 1998 following up on a dream to develop his own unique agritourism business. His in-laws were orchid enthusiasts and explained to him that the vanilla orchid is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit. He began his journey to create America’s first commercial vanilla company and admits today he might not have pursued this dream had he known the complexity and challenges ahead.

 

We live on the Kona or west side of the Big Island of Hawaii and have a small coffee farm where we also raise miniature horses. I teach tourism and destination planning at Palamanui Campus of Hawaii Community College and learning more about unique tourism experiences is always of value. Many of our students grow up on unique Big Island farming operations but don’t always realize the tourism opportunities available with most kinds of farming.

 

Jim Reddekopp prepares the appetizer table side.

They have a capacity of 24 people per day, but I booked two tickets easily over the Internet, choosing the combination of the Vanilla Luncheon and a guided tour of the vanilla farm, a total of $84 plus tax. The tour alone is $25. The farm is about three miles uphill from the main highway between Honokaa to Hilo at the village of Paauilo, almost a two-hour drive for us. We arrived about noon at the yellow building that houses their food service and Vanilla Shoppe. The building was once a coffee processing plant and later a meat processing operation, since this part of eastern Hawaii has had a rich history of changing agricultural fortunes from sugar cane to coffee to ranching.

 

The lunch began with Jim, the founder, cooking an appetizer at table side that consisted of a delicious shrimp with vanilla infused spice rub, sautéed in olive oil and served on a crisp bread with vanilla mango chutney. The entrée was a tasty vanilla citrus bourbon chicken sandwich topped with vanilla caramelized onions on a vanilla-flavored sweet bread bun with a choice of vanilla aioli or vanilla BBQ sauce, roasted spiced potatoes and an organic tossed salad with a vanilla raspberry balsamic vinegar dressing topped with spicy honey-peppered pecans. We tried the vanilla-flavored Jimmy Boy beverage, their own version of the Arnold Palmer combination of lemonade and iced tea. The meal was delicious and Jim shared the story of how vanilla accentuates flavors when activated by citrus, cream or alcohol. He also shared how to make your own vanilla extract by combining slit vanilla pods in a bottle with your favorite alcohol – vodka, whiskey, rum or whatever.

 

After lunch, Ian, Jim’s son, took us down the hill for a visit to the shade houses used to grow the vanilla orchid vines. Ian told the story of their learning journey very well. They credit Tom Kadooka, a Big Island orchid specialist with getting them started. Visits to Mexico farms that produce vanilla and Madagascar where the very best vanilla is produced added to their knowledge bases. Their approaches to growing and harvesting evolved over several years, but the current

Ian shared their unique story while showing us the growing vanilla vines.

system seems to be working well. Orchid vines take from two to five years to mature enough to produce flowers, depending on propagation methods. An orchid flower opens for only 4 hours and must be hand-pollinated in that period or no seed pod is produced. It is a very labor intensive farming activity, perhaps only second to the production of saffron. The pods have to grow for two months, be picked green and blanched, and then stored in a very specific environment and hand massaged to produce the best vanilla. The five Reddekopp children have grown up working to produce the unique crop and their good efforts show.

 

After the tour, we returned to the Vanilla Shoppe and snack bar. Cold water and a cup of vanilla ice cream completed the tour, along with a short video to reinforce what we’d just learned about the process of growing and harvesting vanilla, followed by a cup of vanilla flavored coffee (along with cream and vanilla sugar if desired). Jim answered questions and shared a favorite quote, “dreams come one size too big so you can grow into them.” They had a big dream twenty years ago and they have grown into it, producing more than 1,700 pounds of vanilla pods each year. They also produce more than 80 unique products using their vanilla as an ingredient. It would be challenging to go through the meal and tour and then leave without buying vanilla flavored items at their gift shop and so of course, we loaded up a basket of goodies to enjoy later, including the “make your own extract” kit of a bottle with three vanilla beans (add your own liquor).

 

You can stop by during daily hours for a quick snack and shop in their gift store.

The Reddekopp family added the tourism component to a very successful vanilla production farm to create year-round employment for their best employees. It’s a labor-intensive business and keeping a well-trained workforce makes it all better. For the Big Island it is a unique attraction and one more place for tourists and island residents to get a glimpse of a unique agri-business. We left the experience with new stories to tell and a new appreciation of the complex flavors enhanced by vanilla.

 

-Tim Merriman

 

 

Dolphin Swims on the Big Island

Sometimes there are no easy answers to complex problems. Dolphin swims on the Big Island have been around for several decades as a recreational activity. As visitors to the island we, like many others, enjoyed amazing experiences on dolphin swims with Dolphin

Family groups cruise by when you are near dolphins in the water.

Family groups cruise by when you are near dolphins in the water.

Journeys’ Captain Nancy Sweatt. She always provided a high quality and very ethical experience, emphasizing respect for the spinner dolphins and other marine life we would see.

 

A dolphin swim is one of the most connecting experiences I have ever had on land or in the water. Her boat, Dolphin TLC, would drop us off in an area where dolphins were sighted cruising in about 60 to 90 feet of water over light colored sand. We were instructed to wait for dolphins to come near on their own, and told not to pursue them or swim toward them. We watched, took photographs, and kept memories close to our hearts. These experiences caused us to do

It works well to just be there and wait. They come up to breathe, jump and spin, or just cruise by.

It works well to just be there and wait. They come up to breathe, jump and spin, or just cruise by.

more research on spinner dolphins and learn more about the controversies surrounding human interaction with them.

 

Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) spend their nights diving down as deep as 1,000 meters to feed on fish and squid. In the daytime they cruise to shallow bays (100 feet or less) usually over sand or an open bottom to rest. One side of their brain sleeps while the other keeps them cruising down near the bottom for several minutes with quick moves to the surface for a breath and then back to the bottom. They need this resting period each day to remain healthy and strong enough to head back out to deeper waters to feed.

 

Some come close to take a look at us as we study them.

Some come close to take a look at us as we study them.

When we first went out with Dolphin Journeys, ours was often the only boat around, with just six swimmers and a crew member in the water to encourage respectful behavior. In recent years the number of operators has grown to a dozen or more in Kailua-Kona area alone. Dolphins in four bays on Hawaii and one on Maui might have as many as sixteen boats near them and 60 to 100 swimmers in the water each morning. Some boats have crew members helping and other seem to just drop their clients in the water, picking them up if the dolphins leave the area or their schedule dictates time to go.

 

Watching dolphins from a boat is interesting but not nearly as powerful, as connecting as seeing them close while in the water. They approach boats and sometimes cruise along with them, seemingly for fun.

Watching dolphins from a boat is interesting but not nearly as powerful, as connecting as seeing them close while in the water. They approach boats and sometimes cruise along with them, seemingly for fun.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) has a policy and enforcement role related to marine mammals and they have set previous guidelines which include directions to not harass dolphins. Recently NOAA’s scientists have expressed concern about increased pressure on dolphins from swimmers, primarily associated with commercial boat tours but also in bays easily reached from the shore, such as Honaunau Bay.

 

A new proposal by NOAA will effectively ban dolphin swims from boats and in coastal waters throughout the islands. It will require swimmers to leave areas of a bay if dolphins come in to rest. NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office is holding six public hearings to get comments about the new regulations. I attended the first one at Konawaena High School and stayed for the first 3 hours of what likely turned out to be five or six hours of comments from 100 or more people with a total audience of 200 or more. As you might expect there were comments both directions – don’t change the regulations and implement the complete ban in coastal waters. Perhaps three-quarters at that meeting preferred the “no change” option.

 

My comments were from my unique perspective with more than four decades of working in interpretation of natural and cultural resources. Swimming near spinner dolphins is one of the most connecting experiences I have ever had. While there are definitely differences in species and circumstances, the situation reminds me of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

 

dsc_0074

Mountain gorillas have come back from the brink of extinction in E. Africa. Tourism is a critical component for it pays for protection and helps people understand these poorly understood primate relatives of humans.

Researcher Dian Fosse opposed gorilla tourism. After her death, other biologists worked with government officials to develop gorilla tourism in hopes of saving habitat for and providing protection for gorillas. The mountain gorilla population was down to only 220 individuals. Largely due to the anti-poaching protection afforded by tourists with armed guides and guards, it has grown to more than 900 today. A strictly regulated number of tourists go out each day in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo with wild but habituated gorillas. Gorilla tourists often describe the experience as life changing. Swimming with dolphins has that feel also.

 

Who is helping people learn about dolphins and connect with these fascinating mammals since government agencies do not put ocean interpreters on the water with the public? More than 3,000 paid interpreters with National Park Service and 70,000 volunteers interpret 413 national parks, monuments and battlefields. A few dozen environmental educators and interpreters do similar duties in marine sanctuaries. For the most part, interpretation of dolphins and other marine mammals is left to private dolphin swim operators.

 

Spinner dolphins out swim us with little effort. When they come close, you feel privileged to get a good look. They are amazing.

Spinner dolphins out swim us with little effort. When they come close, we feel privileged to get a good look. They are amazing.

I think these activities should be allowed with some reasonable and enforceable regulations, but the proposed regulations do not seem reasonable or enforceable. NOAA law enforcement representative indicated fines could be as much as $100,000 and a year in jail – just for swimming near dolphins. NOAA lacks the staff to actually monitor these rules and if they did make arrests and get convictions, the public relations reactions could be more damaging than helpful.

 

Most of us who have been near them in the water have stories of dolphins coming over to inspect us, sometimes playfully, sometimes slowly, watching with care. Several who gave comments told anecdotes of dolphins seeking human help to untangle fishing line from their flippers or tails.

 

Largely missed in this conversation is the opportunity for citizen science. If the researchers at NOAA provided survey forms and training to boat operators and dolphin watchers from the shore, data could be collected that might answer some of the many unanswered questions about these unique creatures. Are spinner dolphin populations increasing, staying the same or in decline? What time of day do they arrive at each bay and what time do they leave? What exactly do they do while resting if undisturbed and how does that differ from when they interact with humans? It was interesting that everyone in the room shared a passion for helping dolphins. How do we harness that passion and commonality?

 

Can dolphin watchers, lovers, swimmers and advocates be allowed some accommodation to sharing the waters of Hawaii?

 

If ever we needed more inter-species understanding it is now and those who love dolphins would enjoy being involved in better protection and interpretation of them. NOAA is an agency of science and policy charged with protecting oceans and the atmosphere. We do appreciate what they do as an agency. We also need a grand effort to interpret oceans and connect people with these vital bodies of water and their inhabitants. Here is a great chance to collaborate, protect and interpret these fascinating animals.

 

– Tim Merriman

 

 

Everything We Do Matters!

One of our favorite quotes comes from one of our favorite people, Dr. Jane Goodall, who said:

 

Everything you do makes a difference. Only you can decide what kind of difference you want to make.

 

We were impressed when we first met artist Calley O’Neill because one of the first things she said Calley at the International Wildlife Exhibition, Londonwas “Everything we do matters.” Calley O’Neill is on a mission of inspiration through her unique collaboration with Rama, an Asian elephant, and Jeb Barsh, Rama’s keeper. We had a fascinating first meeting with Calley and her assistant, Julia, during dinner at the home of mutual friends. Conversations ranged far afield, but we soon learned that we share many interests in common.

 

Calley is Artist-in-Residence at the Four Seasons on the Big Island. She also teaches yoga twice weekly in Waikoloa. She has a long career as a muralist, stained-glass artist, painter and landscape designer. She has many clients but especially enjoys working with grade schools to create collaborative murals that light up the eyes and imaginations of young people.

Rama Four

If you watch the attached video, she tells the story of meeting Rama, an Asian elephant who painted at the Oregon Zoo. Much earlier in her life as an artist she had considered collaborating with an abstract artist on paintings that would include her more realistic images, but did not find InterspeciesPainting-OurDedication--element944the right person with whom to work. The idea of working with an elephant on a collaboration of that kind seemed just right. Ten years ago she began the project that will ultimately consist of thirty-six 5’x7’ canvases with Calley’s endangered species paintings overlaid on abstract backgrounds painted by Rama.

 

Rama-Jeb-Calley

Rama, Calley and Jeb at the Oregon Zoo

With 21 of the planned paintings completed, Calley began to try to figure out when, where and how to exhibit these incredible images. She received a bigger first YES! than she could imagine! These wildlife thangka paintings will be presented as the major art exhibition at the IUCN World Conservation Congress comes to Oahu in September of 2016. The conference brings representatives from 170 nations together to share conservation successes and challenges, so it seems fitting that the THE RAMA EXHIBITION, SPEAKING ON BEHALF OF THOSE WHO CANNOT SPEAK, will have its public debut here.

 

Everything-We-Do-Matters---Framing, transporting and displaying these works of art is not inexpensive and cannot be reasonably covered by the IUCN or by Calley herself. The Rama Exhibition team has put together a crowd funding program with Kickstarter.com to help bring this unique collaboration to its first major viewing and then expand around the world to inspire people to think about our ongoing collaboration among all species to live on this Earth together in harmony.

 

You can be part of this unique collaboration between a very talented Big Island artist and the late RAMA, an amazing elephant ambassador born in captivity. Visit Kickstarter to make a contribution and please share the story of Calley’s commitment to conservation awareness and action with your networks.

 

Mahalo nui (many thanks),

Lisa and Tim

A Visit with Mountain Gorillas – CANCELLED 3/21/16

Due to not meeting the minimum travelers needed to tour Rwanda in October, we have cancelled the trip as of March 21, 2016. If you have a group of six or more interested in a tour of Rwanda with us as your interpretive guides, let us know and we can plan for your specific group.

Cook’s Journey

Cook's monument is visible from any point on Kealakekua Bay.

Cook’s monument is visible from any point on Kealakekua Bay.

Each morning I go out for a 2.5 mile jog in our neighborhood on the Big Island of Hawaii. In one stretch of the run I am looking down at Kealakekua Bay and the white obelisk erected to commemorate the location where famed explorer Captain James Cook was killed at age 50 on February 14, 1779. Cook circumnavigated the Earth, mapping many coastlines for the first time, proving New Zealand to be an island and disproving the hoped for Northwest Passage. Cook’s journey ended on the Big Island when he returned to Kealakekua Bay to replace a broken mast. He took King Kalani’opu’u into custody to leverage return of one of his landing boats borrowed by local people. He was stabbed to death by warriors and villagers loyal to the king, ending his third journey of discovery into the uncharted waters of the Pacific Ocean and Coral Sea.

 

PW4JbbgvxHYCSense of place is based on many components with human history being an important element. Our move to this hillside coffee farm on Mauna Loa volcano stimulated me to begin reading Cook’s journals, which I downloaded from Amazon.com. He wrote more than a million words over the years. I found them deadly dull with observations of sailing conditions, bland references to shipboard conditions and reports of disease or punishments handed out, but few of his motivations for exploring. Then I found Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who wrote for the Wall Street Journal and New Yorker.

 

Many biographies have been written about Captain Cook. This book takes you on a unique journey with the author and colorful Aussie friend, Roger, to the modern-day locations Cook visited in the 1760s and 1770s. Horwitz blends his thoughtful observations of the modern realities of his stops along the way with Cook’s own words in his journals. The author speculates about Cook’s motivations and choices after interviewing local people and Cook historians at the locales visited. His extensive research of the varied side stories add charm and detail where needed to help sort out conflicting versions.

 

Horwitz started his research with a tortuous week-long internship as a sailor on a replica of Cook’s first ship, a wooden coal-hauling sailing vessel. Just one week convinced him that surviving a trip with Cook must have required incredible patience and endurance. Later in his research he traveled the Aleutian Islands on a ferry and learned that modern ships sometimes provide a miserable experience in the rugged waters of Alaska and the Bering Sea. His ferry captain observed that Cook’s feats were astonishing in surviving the rugged waters of the arctic.

 

The author also points out the broad influences of Cook on popular culture. I had never made the connection with the fictional Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, who also traveled with his trusted medical officer, Bones, and Science Officer Spock. James Cook traveled on the HMS Endeavor on his first journey with his trusted surgeon and science specialist.

 

By Nathaniel Dance-Holland - from the National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom - James Cook official portrait

By Nathaniel Dance-Holland – from the National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom – James Cook official portrait

Captain James Cook was a steady and fair captain by most accounts until the last few weeks of his life. He was a whiz at math, a master mapmaker, and ahead of his times in using fresh and preserved foods in keeping his crew alive without the losses from scurvy that plagued other sailors in his time. He traveled tens of thousands of miles in the worst possible conditions, but returned to his home in London for brief visits with family back in England before setting off on another exploration. His words from the 1770s sound like something a NASA astronaut might say today,

            Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.

Those of us who interpret nature and history rely on biographies to interpret key events and characters in history. Every additional source adds nuance.

Horowitz’ interpretation of Cook’s life and journey is the best biographical and travel reading experience I have ever had. It especially makes a great read before visiting any of the places Cook lived or traveled – Yorkshire UK, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Alaska and Hawaii.

 

  • Tim Merriman

 

P.S. Did I mention we live in Captain Cook, Hawaii?

 

 

Festival of 1000 Bowls

IMG_3105We recently stopped by the Cool Fusion: Festival of 1000 Bowls held by the Donkey Mill Art Center at Keauhou Shopping Center south of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, with only a little idea of what the 4-hour event held in store for us. It was lunchtime and a Somen Noodle lunch is part of the fun of this event highlighting local pottery.

 

For $20 in advance of the event or $25 at entry you may pick a pottery bowl from the specified tables to use that day and take home. A volunteer with an iPad and Square app stands by to let you use a credit card to pay. Then you can shop at the other tables with pottery items to purchase, listen to local musicians or the Innovations Youth Orchestra or join one of two lines for food.

 

IMG_3097Volunteers served up home-style Somen noodles or gluten-free rice noodles. We could add up to eight or nine items of choice including a variety of veggies, kelp, shitake mushrooms, wasabi and fresh ginger. Home-style soy-based soup finishes the dish. We milled around, enjoyed the noodles and went back for seconds. The price includes as many visits to the food table as you wish. For $15 you can buy a pottery sake cup and taste sake samples or you can enjoy iced Kona coffee and tea for free.

 

I like this approach to fundraising because it directly supports the mission of the organization. Pottery sales support local potters, many of whom learned the craft at the DMAC. The food honors the many Japanese-American coffee and macadamia nut farmers that live in this area. The entertainment is local and very much a part of the arts scene for the community.

 

IMG_3100 (1)Too often smaller organizations hold bake sales, car washes and rummage sales to raise funds. These do not usually match the organizational purpose or build a stronger image for the sponsor. When the fundraising event is programmatically aligned with the mission, it works at all levels to build brand. Repeating the event annually usually allows fine-tuning each year to improve profitability. This was the Ninth Annual Festival of 1000 Bowls and it seems to have growing support in the community, fun for residents and tourists alike.

 

Fundraising can be a tedious chore for nonprofit organizations. When events are both purposeful programs and successful in building revenue, everyone has a better time.

 

Tim Merriman

 

Six Good Reasons to Stop Displaying Taxidermy Animals

I recently visited a major natural history museum in a U.S. city and again wondered at the tradition of displaying dead animals as so-called “live mounts.” I say “so-called” because the animals do not look alive. They just look dead, and are often displayed in unnatural poses or scenes. I will not judge the wisdom of taxidermy mounts in the past, but I sure question their use now or in the future. Much has changed since they became a major part of any natural history exhibit. I think there are NSbisonclassroommany good reasons to phase them out everywhere, but here are six to think about.

 

  • Videography is widely available and shows any animal in its natural habitat, behaving normally. You learn little from a still scene with stuffed animals other than how the taxidermist feels the animal might have looked at one particular second in time.
  • Some young people see taxidermy animals and want their own trophy. Encouraging trophy hunting in a world with declining wildlife populations is a dubious choice. A camera captures a trophy shot or video of a living creature that is far more easily shared with others than a mounted specimen. Why would we not choose that option over killing an animal for anything less than our own survival?
  • Making a stuffed animal "touchable" usually results in degradation of the skin and fur with some danger from arsenic if its an older live mount.

    Making a stuffed animal “touchable” usually results in loss of fur with some danger from arsenic if its an older live mount.

    Many older live mounts were preserved with arsenic to discourage insect damage. Placing these specimens where the public can touch them to feel the fur is a bad idea. It transfers the arsenic to anyone who touches it and hastens the loss of fur on the specimen.

  • People who see a taxidermy mount often ask, “How did you obtain that?” You are faced with the opportunity to say it was found dead or tell the unflattering truth that it was shot or trapped to become a display. In either case the person asking will likely be wondering if your organization’s ethical position is one they want to support.
  • Even expertly mounted specimens do not always look like the live animal. It is not easy to precisely recreate its look when building a body from artificial materials. In some cases, specimens are placed out of context or in juxtaposition with other animals in a scenario that would be highly unlikely in nature, misrepresenting reality and negating any educational value that might be gained from the display.
  • Lions of Tsavo exhibit in Chicago, IL, at the Museum of Natural History.

    Lions of Tsavo exhibit in Chicago, IL, at the Museum of Natural History.

    Taxidermy mounts often show only a single example of a species and sometimes that example is the largest, the most unusual, or some other hyperbolic example instead of the average. The diversity of colors and shapes among that species may be bypassed. The man-eating lions of Tsavo National Park in Kenya were anomalies in lion behavior but display of them at a Chicago museum keeps this unique and frightening story alive instead of celebrating the important role that lions play in African savannahs, usually with very little danger to humans if we behave appropriately.

 

My views on this grew from observing people viewing taxidermy mounts at a state park visitor center in Illinois in 1972. I watched and listened as children approached them and asked questions of us. A few weeks into that job, I pulled all of them off display and moved toward photography and works of art to show examples of animals. I enjoyed not explaining how we came to be displaying dead animals at a place where we were charged with protecting living animals. I had inherited the exhibit from a previous manager, but could not ethically keep it in front of the public.

 

The media we choose to interpret natural history also tells people quite a lot about our ethics. Isn’t it time to take dead animals off display and share the amazing experiences of seeing them in nature?

 

– Tim Merriman